I joined the quadriplegic sailor and her team for a sail hours after their outstanding trans ocean trip

Fun though it is, a Dragonfly 28 is a small trimaran for four people, but when one of them is a quadriplegic and the trip was an 850mile passage from Mumbai to Muscat taking nine days, it became clear that this was a major under taking.
Hilary Lister’s latest record setting trip is staggering as I discovered when I went to sail with the team shortly after their arrival here in Muscat.
Accompanied by, Nashwa Al Kindi, a female Omani dinghy instructor who only took up sailing three years ago and had never been offshore before, Lister’s carer Lisa Blacklocks who has never sailed before and Niall who acted as camera man and emergency backup should the team run into difficulties, the thrill of having completed a major challenge was clearly only just starting to sink in. There was a buzz aboard the small boat as the crew reflected on the highs and lows of an extraordinary passage. A trip that has led to Lister and Al Kindi staking claims as the first ever severely paralysed woman and the first Arab female sailor to make a trans-oceanic crossing.
But while a trip that was 40 percent longer than a Fastnet in a boat that would not officially qualify, it was the practicalities of handling the boat and more importantly Hilary, who suffers from a degenerative disease (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy) paralysing her from the neck down, that started to sink in for me.
One of the first things that drew my attention was how little the boat has been modified. I had expected an array of complicated systems and sophisticated electronics, but in reality the Dragonfly remains a fairly standard boat. The biggest difference is the suck and puff control system, a development of a similar arrangement that Hilary used on her previous boats.
“This system was designed by Roger Crabtree who is based in New Zealand,” she said. “We’ve never met and he’s not seen the boat, but we developed the system together over Skype. Given the distances involved at least one of us was always in pajamas!”
Hilary, handles the boat from her cocoon type moulded seat strapped onto the port side of the cockpit from where she can operate the three small suck and puff pipes which operate a electronic processor which in turn operates winches and the autopilot. The left hand pipe controls the electrically powered Harken backwinding primary winches. A suck on the pipe sheets in, a puff eases the sheet out.
The middle pipe controls the jib sheet winches mounted either side of the companionway but in this case both winches operate and in opposite directions. Sucking or blowing allows the jib to be tacked as one sheet is eased the other is sheeted in.
The third pipe on her right hand side operates the autopilot. A one second suck or puff alters course by one degree either to port or to starboard while a two second suck or puff adjusts the heading by increments of 10 degrees at a time.
“In the end we had to fit two autopilots, one for me and one for Nashwa as it became too complex to incorporate both sets of functions into one unit. I nicknamed my autopilot Kevin after the TV comedy characters Kevin and Perry as Kevin is rarely doing what he should,” she joked.
But this is where the complex technology designed to assist Hilary stopped. Aside from a long stylus with tip wrapped in silver foil to allow her to operate her iPad which is wirelessly linked to the Raymarine chartplotter, the tweaks and mods to the boat elsewhere are surprisingly basic. From additional halyards to wooden boards to help slide her about the accommodation, it was these more basic items that really brought the special requirements and challenges to life.
Getting Hilary below decks for example requires her to be lifted out of her seat using a halyard attached to the bag/cradle type arrangement in which Hilary lies. Just hoisting her onto the boat from the dock made me wince as she was effectively folded in two as she was craned aloft. Getting her down below meant manhandling her through the companionway hatch and onto a bunk in the saloon. In calm weather this took just a few minutes with practice, but in the 3m seas that they experienced at times, the task became considerably more tricky.
The team ran a 6hour on and off watch system during the day but at night brought this back to 3 hours on and off. Even then there were times when it was simply easier for Hilary to remain on deck for her off watch. In fact, Hilary was rarely down below. Staying on deck for the bulk of the nine day crossing would be a challenge for anyone.
Power was also an issue, particularly given that the boat on has a 15hp outboard motor and space constraints meant that only a limited amount of fuel could be carried. Not only did the batteries have to supply sufficient power for the winches and instruments, but also for Hilary’s breathing apparatus that is required regularly in order to clear the build up of carbon dioxide in her lungs. Without such treatment she wouldn’t survive.
All of which may draw some to consider that the trip was perhaps pushing boundaries too far and forcing the team to take big risks. After all, what if all power was lost, what if they needed to get into a liferaft? These and many more worrying scenarios were discussed and planned for at length as well as a sea survival course for the crew including Hilary.
But above all else, while it may be easy to make armchair judgments, it’s even easier to see why such obstacles don’t carry much weight with Hilary when you meet her.
Focused, driven and reading between the lines when talking to her mother, stubborn, a short sail with her and her team was a moving and inspirational trip – especially with one particular passing comment.
“When I completed my round Britain trip, tough though it was at times, I couldn’t bear the thought of spending 14 hours a day on the sofa at home. I need to be out there.”
I’d say she speaks for us all in that respect, but when she says it from her cocoon in the cockpit after nine days and 850 miles, her words carry a great deal of weight.